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CD: Boston Secession


Surprised by beauty – Minimalism in choral music
Gavin BRYARS (b. 1943)
And so ended Kant’s travelling in this world (1997) [6.09]
Arvo PÄRT (b. 1935)
The Beatitudes
(1990) [9.04]
Ruth LOMON (b. 1930)
(2006) [6.45]
William DUCKWORTH (b. 1943)
Southern Harmony
(excerpts) (1980-81) [24.20]
William WALKER (1809-1875)
Selection from The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion (1835) [4.50]
Boston Secession/Jane Ring Frank
rec. June 2007, Church of the Redeemer, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.
Experience Classicsonline

The title of this disc is “Surprised by beauty – minimalism in choral music”, but actually very little of the music on this disc is strictly minimal. Whilst Gavin Bryars and Arvo Pärt have some minimalist credentials, their music on this disc is very far from the process music which represents true minimalism. William Duckworth’s 1980-81 piece, Southern Harmony is perhaps the closest to genuine minimalism, but these re-workings of 19th century fuguing tunes still eschew the hypnotic repetition of the 1970s music of Glass and Reich. As for Ruth Lomon’s Transport, no-one would ever mistake this for a minimal piece.
So why use this title? In his introductory essay in the CD booklet, Robert Fink relates minimalism to arte povera, the minimalism of materials, finding beauty in common everyday things. Frankly, I think it would have been better to eschew a theme altogether and simply present this fascinating recital as a collection of fine 20th century choral music. In fact, looking at the four composers involved, it is fascinating how four people all born within a span of 13 years could have such a variety of creative response.
Boston Secession is a professional vocal ensemble of around 25 voices whose repertoire ranges from medieval to contemporary. This is their second CD, their first being titled Afterlife: German Choral Meditations on Mortality, a disc which included music by Hugo Distler, Brahms, Ruth Lomon and an Edwin London realization of Bach. So the group obviously do not tread the easy route when it comes to CD programming.
The disc opens with Gavin Bryars’ 1997 piece And so ended Kant’s travelling in this world, an unaccompanied choral work which uses an extract from Thomas de Quincy’s account of Kant’s final hours. The composer sets the text melodically but in a way that is quite austere and conversational, eschewing any dramatic choral effects until the end where Bryars repeats the title three times. The effect is inward and understated and quite difficult to bring off; Boston Secession do so brilliantly, performing the work with quiet intensity and beauty of tone.
This control of tone continues into Arvo Pärt’s 1990 Beatitudes, his first setting in English. Pärt creates his beautiful music out of the simplest of materials, but there is no mistaking the complexity of intention and the mysterious intensity of the results. Boston Secession, under conductor Jane Ring Frank, start in perfectly hushed tones and avoid big effects until the end. Perhaps they are a little too seduced by simple beauty of tone. A degree of edge to the performance would not come amiss, but this is to quibble, given the choir’s fine control. Heinrich Christensen is the perfect accompanist, underpinning the choir discreetly until the end when Pärt allows the organ to appear out from under the choir and impress us with a final cadenza.
Ruth Lomon’s Transport is an altogether more dramatic. Transport is a movement from her oratorio Testimony of Witness. It uses a series of texts extracted from personal memoirs about being transported during the holocaust. This is a difficult subject, but Lomon and her collaborator Susan Fromberg Schaeffer have chosen the texts well. When it comes to the music, I am a little less convinced. Lomon sets the work for choir and chamber orchestra; she seems to veer between a need to reflect the difficulty of her subject and a desire to create accessible music. Her response is interesting and musical without ever tugging the heart-strings or horrifying us. Perhaps it would have been easier if the text had not been so close to the subject; if the piece had included a little distance. Boston Secession and their orchestra give Lomon’s work a strong performance; other listeners might find the work more moving than did this critic.
The final contemporary work on the disc is an extract from William Duckworth’s Southern Harmony. Boston Secession perform seven movements from the twenty movements in Duckworth’s complete work. Duckworth took tunes from the 1835 publication The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion which compiled the traditional shape-note songs and fuguing tunes used by the semi-literate Baptists and Methodists of the rural South. The original songs are remarkable, sounding raw and unfinished to modern ears. In fact Boston Secession perform three of the original tunes at the end of the disc. These sound remarkably modern in their uncompromisingly bare harmonies. In fact Duckworth’s re-workings have the effect of making these pieces sound rather more polite. But Duckworth is endlessly inventive and choirs would do well to investigate his Southern Harmony.
The CD booklet includes the article by Robert Fink and all the texts of the pieces.
This is an interesting disc, showcasing a fine choir. Their conductor gets strong performances of each of the pieces on the disc. I am note quite sure that the recital quite adds up to a concrete whole; for me the mix of pieces does not quite gel. I felt that there were two competing discs in here, a minimal/post-minimal one and another one entirely. But if the mix of works appeals then look no further.
Robert Hugill


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